The New Jersey Meadowlands is a vast wetland ecosystem located in one of the most populous regions in the nation, with the Manhattan skyline framing its eastern edge. Considered a swampy wasteland for much of the 20th century, some portions of the Meadowlands became a literal dumping ground—landfill central for northeastern New Jersey—while other portions were paved over to make way for shopping, sports, and entertainment venues. Beginning in the 1970s, after the federal Clean Water Act reduced pollution inputs and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission regulated and closed landfills, the environment gradually improved.
In the 1990s, as scientists at Rutgers and elsewhere joined with concerned citizens and conservation groups, the Meadowlands expanse was reconsidered with fresh eyes and over the decades has come to be valued as an ecological wonder. It provides a wetland buffer against flooding (think Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, a city built on former wetlands); is home to important flora and fauna; and is emerging as a serene and surprising ecotourism destination just a few miles from New York City.
Rutgers researchers study the plants and animals of the Meadowlands to understand how pollution affects the ecosystem and what can be done to restore its health. The subject of one ongoing study is the blue crab, which is banned from commercial fishing in the Meadowlands because of the high levels of contaminants, such as mercury, dioxin, and PCBs, found in the species. A wide range of students—from high school to the doctoral level—have been able to conduct blue crab and other Meadowlands research with Professor Judith S. Weis, a Rutgers biologist who is a leading expert on the Meadowlands and other salt marsh ecosystems.